And if we get past those self-centered reasons for caring about U.S. foreign policy, we can start to think about how others are affected by America's actions. At our best, the United States can bring hope and light to the neediest people in the world. I have seen Americans doing this good, hard work in nasty places all over the planet. At our worst, we bring pain, breed fear and unleash the fury of those who conclude we are part of the same tyranny against which they have always fought. Too often, people hear about American values and then see quite different American actions. People who should be our natural allies turn away with disillusionment and disappointment.
Yes, there are people who seek fault in all actions by America overseas. I am not one of them, and I don't think you should be either. The path of "blame America first" leads to a dead end. American leadership, leadership marked by pulling together those who share a common interest in the common good, is a vital force in the world. Tossing it away would be a sin.
On the flip side, there are those who want to forever build American global supremacy as the only path to American security. And this path leads to bankruptcy and inevitable retribution. Like holding a fistful of sand, the harder we squeeze, the faster we lose our grip.
Finding the Middle Path
There is a middle path. It is not mysterious, and it does not require deep research by think-tanks and gurus. In fact, most Americans already grasp it. In fact, many mistakenly believe this middle path is already the foreign policy of the United States. And this explains why they are shaken (or in denial) when they see overt evidence of an America abroad they do not recognize.
Most Americans believe in American values: democracy, justice, fair play, hard work, a helping hand when needed, privacy, creating opportunities for personal success, respect for others unless they prove they don't deserve it, and cooperation with others who are working toward the same goals.
These values work in our homes and our neighborhoods. They work in our communities and our national life. And they work in the wider world as well.
The middle path for foreign policy involves working with our allies, rewarding those who share our values, and joining arms against tyranny and hatred. It is slow hard work. It has much more in common with the tortoise than the hare. Teddy Roosevelt said we need to walk softly and carry a big stick. TR understood that walking softly was a sign of both caring and confidence. Having the big stick meant we had a great deal of time to work out a problem. Resorting to the stick meant that other means had failed. Resorting to the stick does not require shame, but it does call for sober and serious reflection. Resorting to the stick was (and is) nothing to be proud of.
Taking the middle path means holding ourselves to high standards. Americans never quite grasped what happened with those pictures from the Abu Graib prison in Iraq. The rest of the world never saw how sickened average Americans were by those images. The rest of the world expected to hear America say out loud what most Americans were thinking: What happened in that prison, whether it was two Americans or 20 or 200 who were responsible, was awful, it is not what this country stands for, and we are all ashamed to know that this was done in the name of America. Instead, all the world saw were American leaders trying to downplay the significance of the pictures and pass the buck. An opportunity to show the world what America really stands for slipped away.
Demanding American control over the world is out of step with our values. It creates more enemies and it encourages those enemies to band together against us. It makes the United States the target for every grievance in the world. Likewise, withdrawing from the world leaves too many open options for those opposed to our values. We seek to be neither an 800-pound gorilla in the world nor to withdraw into our cocoon.
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